From 'Diary' to Living History Lesson : Exhibition: Anne Frank's World War II chronicle and its greater context are the subject of an upcoming Newport museum installation with local survivors as docents.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fifty years ago, on a day in late March, a 15-year-old girl died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. She was only one of an estimated 18,000 prisoners who succumbed to the illness sweeping Bergen-Belsen that month, only one of the millions who died in camps at the hands of the Nazi regime. But she is perhaps the one whose name is best known: Anne Frank.

For 25 months, the Frank family and four other Jews evaded transport to the death camps by hiding in the "secret annex" of a building on Amsterdam's Prinsengracht Canal. Sustained by friends outside, they hoped to outlast the Nazi occupation of Holland. But their hiding place was found in August, 1944. Anne's father, Otto Frank, was the annex's only survivor.

But something of Anne Frank--a glimpse into her loving spirit, her daily courage and her hopes--had survived too. She had kept a diary.

Now Anne Frank's life and times are the focus of an educational exhibition at the Newport Harbor Art Museum. "Anne Frank in the World," which opens April 20 and continues through June 18, is aimed primarily at junior high and high school students, for whom "Anne Frank: The Diary of Young Girl" is usually required reading.

"Anne Frank in the World" uses 540 pictures, facsimiles of the diary and other materials to tell the story of events from 1929 to 1945--the span of Anne Frank's short life. The exhibition draws parallels to the world today, suggesting that the political apathy, prejudice and scapegoating that laid the foundation for Hitler's regime and its "final solution" still exist.

"Anne Frank in the World" comes to Orange County at an appropriate time, said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.

Reports compiled by the commission and the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith show a leap in the number of hate-related incidents against Jews in Orange County over the past two years. Thirty-one such incidents were reported to the commission in 1993. The number rose to 53 in 1994, Kennedy said. The Anti-Defamation League tallied 41 anti-Semitic incidents in Orange County in 1993 and 50 last year.

"Anne Frank in the World" reminds people of what happens when a society ignores or tolerates a rising tide of ethnic and religious hatred, Kennedy said.

"It's important to look back and draw lessons from that," he said.

A group of Orange County residents who survived the concentration camps or managed to evade arrest by hiding will act as docents or guest speakers at the exhibit. Some of them will also be paired with Orange County high school students to lead groups of students through the exhibition.

Also in connection with the event, a Los Angeles-based organization, the Committee of Concerned Christians, has donated 100,000 copies of "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl" to school districts throughout Orange County.

The exhibition's focus reflects Otto Frank's beliefs about the role of his daughter's testament, said Barry VanDriel, international coordinator for the Anne Frank House, which created "Anne Frank in the World." VanDriel also trained the first group of docents for the Orange County show.

Otto Frank "thought it was important to remind people about what led to the Holocaust," VanDriel said. "He regretted than his family had been victimized, but he said that he wanted to keep Anne Frank's message alive for everyone. It's not just what happened to Anne's family or the Jews. It's a universal story. It appeals to anyone who has been oppressed in any way. They can identify with Anne."

Esther Leiner does--in an intensely personal way.

"It was like seeing myself," said Leiner, 61, a Corona del Mar businesswoman, talking about her first reading of Anne Frank's diary. "This little girl lived my life. I lived hers. Thousands of children lived this life, but she was able to write about it. She had the paper and the pencil to do it. That was the miracle."

In their home country of Poland, Leiner and her family moved from city to city in advance of the German invasion, finally taking refuge with the family's non-Jewish nanny. She hid them in a woodshed outside her house. Leiner's little sister, too young to keep the silence necessary for survival, was sheltered with nuns at a nearby convent.

Leiner's father dug a tunnel with his bare hands in the shed's dirt floor, creating a tiny, dark space where his family could hide for an hour or so from passing army patrols or strangers who came to visit the nanny.

For a year and a half, until 1942, Leiner and her parents hid in the cold wooden shed, never going outside and talking only in whispers. It was a sore trial for Esther, who was 6 when the family began its secret life.

Then the German army decided to billet a family of collaborators with the woman. She could no longer bring Leiner's family food or take out the slop bucket.

Leiner's father went in search of a friend who had once offered them shelter. He was arrested on the way. Rather than risk torture and the revelation of his family's hiding place, he ran and was immediately shot and killed by soldiers, Leiner said. Her mother, in shock and not wanting to live without her husband, managed to find the friend, who offered her and her daughter a safe place. Until the end of the war, Leiner and her mother hid in a barn, covering themselves in straw to avoid detection.

"I felt this connection to Anne, always, because our circumstances were so similar," Leiner said. "But she was discovered, and I was lucky. I could survive and be a witness that this really happened."

Leiner, a member of the Orange County Anne Frank Organizing Committee, which is sponsoring the exhibition, has agreed to be a guest speaker during the show.

"It's not that I want to tell my story, but this particular exhibition has a very special meaning to me: It's directed toward children," she said. "Because I've never had a normal childhood, I feel it's my duty to make a difference, to show them if your circumstances are difficult, if you have a hard time, and plenty of children do, maybe there is a better tomorrow, and they should strive for it."

Michael Tan, 16, said he wanted to be a docent for the show because he sees people his age who don't care about hate crimes, politics or the lessons of history.

"They're really kind of unaware of the problems in our society," said Michael, a sophomore at Irvine High School.

He hopes to get the student visitors to identify with Anne Frank and learn about her life by asking whether they've experienced racism or prejudice. And, though a little nervous, he is willing to talk about his experiences.

Two years ago, Michael and his family moved from Canada, where he was born, to Missouri. His schools had only a handful of Asian students. And because of his Chinese background, he was singled out as an oddity.

"There was nothing horrible, awful or really bad, not on the level of a hate crime, but every day I'd get comments like, 'Do you speak English? Do you know Bruce Lee?' " he said. "They'd do very odd martial-arts-imitation things and bow to me and make odd, Asian-sounding noises. It was more of an annoyance than anything. But it made me furious."

Yet, Michael said, he knows there were students, bused in from the inner city, that he didn't make an effort to know.

"I was afraid, not for my safety, but of not knowing what to say. You want to stay in your comfortable niche, and you end up discriminating," he said. "Instead of admitting you're afraid, you create stereotypes."

Michael, who moved with his family to Irvine in October, said he can't stop thinking about some of the images he saw in docent training for the Anne Frank exhibit: the surrender of democracy in Gemany; the propaganda that turned little girls in dirndls into haters of anyone "non-Aryan" and the piles of bodies in the camps.

"It was very disturbing, but it was also motivating," he said. "Barry (VanDriel) kept reiterating that (the exhibition) wasn't meant to depress people or beat them down with these horrible, graphic images of the Holocaust, but to make them realize--and this sounds really corny, but it's true--they can make a difference. But they have to be socially responsible and not apathetic and be aware of the dangers of stereotyping and racism. They have to take responsibility. No one else will."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°